I hereby nominate House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for the James Buchanan prize, awarded for monumental smallness in a time demanding leadership. The 15th president, you might recall, was a politician who tried to take both sides on a matter of conscience and chose to temporize rather than govern. In his 1857 inaugural address, Buchanan proclaimed that slavery was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” Five years later came Antietam.

It wasn’t easy, but McCarthy has managed to fill Buchanan’s teensy, tiny shoes. In a normal political time, it would make perfect sense for a minority leader to keep his caucus happy by throwing a controversial member of the House leadership off the lifeboat. It would make sense to avoid internal GOP debates, wait patiently for likely midterm victories and slip into the speakership with little fuss. It would make sense to take the easiest path to power — which runs, McCarthy believes, through Mar-a-Lago.

These are not, however, normal times. And in a trial testing this claim, McCarthy would be a prime witness. He is the one who made the desperate call to President Donald Trump when the Capitol was under siege by a violent mob Trump had assembled, incited and sent in McCarthy’s direction. McCarthy is the one who, during that chaotic conversation, was reportedly taunted by Trump for lacking the anti-constitutional enthusiasm of the rioters. McCarthy is the one who said that Trump “bears responsibility” for the Jan. 6 attack and floated the idea of censure.

There is a reason McCarthy now resists an impartial investigation of the events of Jan. 6: his honest testimony about Trump would be damning. And that is what makes his reversion to sycophancy so contemptible. McCarthy stands condemned by his own 10 minutes of moral clarity. His slinking to Mar-a-Lago to repent for disloyal honesty shows a tolerance for humiliation akin to masochism. Is the speakership worth achieving when it involves the sacrifice of your character, your country and your dignity?

McCarthy is engaged in an elaborate political ploy. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is making a moral and historical argument. “Trump is seeking,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law.” And the former president, she warns, is advancing such claims under the vague — and sometimes not so vague — threat of violence. In her view, this has created an inflection point for the GOP. Is it dedicated to the application of conservative ideas or to the maintenance of a personality cult? Does it defend constitutional norms or edge toward authoritarianism?

How does McCarthy respond to these substantive claims? He doesn’t. He probably couldn’t. So he dismisses the discussion as divisive and seeks to throw a deadly riot, including dead and wounded police officers, down the memory hole. The crowd was really more like a rowdy Lincoln Day dinner. Or maybe a particularly boisterous meeting of the Kiwanis club.

Instead of dealing with reality, McCarthy mouths partisan pablum that the actions of his own party have rendered ridiculous. “Democrats,” he says, “are destroying this nation” — when only the GOP is actively undermining the U.S. system of government. Democrats are responsible for “the greatest expansion of government” — when Trump in power spent money like a drunken socialist. The damage done by Democrats, insists McCarthy, will be irreversible — when it is Republicans who seek to make Trump’s malignant hold on the country permanent.

In handing over Cheney to the braying MAGA crowd, McCarthy explained: “Any member can take whatever position they believe in. … What we’re talking about is a position in leadership.” So it is McCarthy’s official view that “leadership” is no place for, well, leadership. It is a place for limitless fealty to a failed, corrupt and lawless former president. It is dedicated to Trump and Trump eternal.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) is a short, sad story of misdirected ambition. McCarthy is in a very different category. In a crisis of national identity, he has done what comes easy to him. He has shown only shallowness, cravenness and negligence. He has been a quailing, simpering paragon of mediocrity. It is the work of a political hollow man — a Buchanan all our own.

The bad news? McCarthy’s party does have a good shot at winning the House in 2022. Smallness of spirit and vision may well be rewarded.

The good news? The 15th president was followed by the 16th president. America has a history of finding large leaders in times of greatest need.

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